In his own words– Rope rescue at AFD (with newspaper article)

I’ve been going through John’s e-mails and decided to look at his archived files.  It’s interesting to see the things that he saved.  I’ll share some that I find interesting.

He included the text of the article from The Capital

By ERIC COLLINS, Staff Writer

A car caught fire after plunging down a 60-foot embankment outside Annapolis and a speeding driver caused a chain-reaction crash on Route 50 in separate accidents overnight that sent five people to area hospitals.

The first crash occurred about 10:25 p.m. when a 2002 Volkswagen GTI heading west on Aris T. Allen Boulevard went off the road for an unknown reason around a right curve, spun around, hit a curb and flipped over the guardrail past Chinquapin Round Road, according Officer Charles Ravenell, county police spokesman.

The car plunged down the embankment on its hood before landing upside down and catching fire, police said.

Though passenger Brandon Blank, 17, of Crofton was able to pull himself out before losing consciousness, Owen Boyle, 18, of Crofton was trapped in the burning vehicle, according to Lt. Frank Fennell, a county Fire Department spokesman.

A county police officer quickly arrived and headed down the steep terrain of loose rocks and dirt to reach the car and extinguish the blaze, Lt. Fennell said. The name of the officer was not available.

Soon after, about 33 county and city firefighters responded with ladder trucks, fire engines and ambulances and rigged a hoist and pulley system to raise Mr. Blank up the embankment and swing him over to the road, Lt. Fennell said.

It took firefighters about 30 minutes to free Mr. Boyle, who was disoriented and unable to move from the waist down, Lt. Fennell said.  Both were flown by state police helicopters to the Shock Trauma Center at University Hospital in Baltimore.

Mr. Blank was in critical but stable condition this morning while Mr. Boyle was in serious condition at the hospital, a spokesman said.

“Had the police car not got there and (the officer) extinguished the fire, it could have been much graver results,” Lt. Fennell said.

Police shut down portions of Aris T. Allen Boulevard for about 90 minutes during the rescue, he said. Police were still investigating the cause of the crash this morning.

John had saved the e-mail for himself and sent it to me.  I don’t know if he had sent it to anybody else or not.

I’ll give you one guess as to who everyone turned to when they decided to rig the “hoist & pulley system.”

Our engine wasn’t on the initial dispatch, but the paramedic unit was included on the “rescue” assignment with apparatus from the county stations (Engine, Truck, Rescue, 2 paramedics).

Upon hearing the report of the accident, which occurred about 1/2 mile away from our station, our Battalion Chief placed himself on the call and responded.

Our Chief and the paramedics arrived in the area first, followed by the Chief, Engine & Truck from (county) West Annapolis (40) which was about two miles away. Once they located the car, and saw the situation it was in our Battalion Chief immediately called for our Engine. Eventually, our Tower Ladder was also called from Taylor Avenue.

When we (the engine) first arrived, I was assisting the paramedics in carrying equipment down the slope to the car. At the same time, the other crews top side were lowering rescue equipment & lights over the side of the bridge with ropes.

Seeing the situation, I had already made up in MY mind that a vertical haul of a stokes was the easiest & safest way to get the guys up out of there- what with the angle of the slope, the limited access to the slope top-side, and the unsteady footing (several folks nearly killed their selves on the concrete bridge footing, which was covered with a sandy soil and offered no traction.)

Once I had delivered the equipment I made my way top-side, as the rescue crews were coming down to start the extrication. It’s really kind of funny how it all worked out…

By the time I made my way up, somebody important had already decided that they were going to do the haul system. There were rope bags and various hardware laying about. I think they were starting to move the aerial into place as a high point over the edge of the bridge.

Even though the county had a ladder truck and a rescue squad there with rope rescue equipment nobody on the units had any idea what really needed to be done. They knew they wanted to haul the guys up, but that was it.

There were discussions held about using the aerial as a crane, using the winch from the rescue truck… The county Battalion Chief said, “No, we’ll use a haul system.”

The truck & rescue squad guys asked if the county’s HEAT (Hardly Ever Activated) technical rescue team was on the way.


Then my buddy Craig Moore, who was driving our engine, used to work at the Naval Academy with Phil Smith, and was in the Rescue Tech class the city made me take (for the third time), shouted out “I know who can do this… He’s your rope guy right here!”

It was like everybody there turned towards me… Battalion Chiefs, Captains, Lieutenants, Firefighters… And said simultaneously “Tell us what you want to do.”

From that point on, I was the man.

I talked directly to the county Battalion Chief one on one and made sure we were on the same page… We would rig two stokes baskets for a vertical lift in a horizontal position, using the aerial as a high point change of direction. We would set up a z-rig to haul with, anchored to the rear tow hitches on the rescue squad.

“Tell us what you need.”

I sent Craig Moore up the ladder to rig the CoD pulley, I had our Tower lieutenant (who had also been in the Rescue Tech class) rig the anchor & back end of the Z-rig and I threw together the front end of it.

As we were doing this, some other guys hand lowered one basket over the side of the bridge.

“Come here for a second. We’ve got two stokes, but only one lifting harness.”
“No big deal. Just use webbing to make one.”
“I’m not following you.”

I threw out four rolls of webbing…

“Just tie these in loops, you know, with a water knot and make the harness-”


“I’m not following you…”

So I demonstrated a water knot real quick…

“Oh… I gotcha. I can do that!”

… and set the county rescue squad lieutenant & his guys to work making a lift harness for the one stokes basket that didn’t have one…

By that time, the first guy was packaged and ready to be lifted. The haul system was ready to go, but we didn’t have a safety belay in place yet.

“Don’t worry about that! We need to get this guy up!! Pull! Pull!”

And with that from the county Battalion Chief, some guys grabbed hold of the haul rope and started backwards at a near run.

Oh well, too late now…

As they started, Craig called me over from on top of the ladder, and as I looked up at him I saw what it was he wanted- When he rigged the change of direction he had also put a Gibbs ascender in line. (He realized later that he didn’t need to.) He had it on the load side of the pulley, and when the system tension, and pulled the webbing over towards the bridge, all of the weight of the rope was held by the Gibbs, and the pulley was dangling free. The Gibbs was acting as the CoD, and there was nearly a 90° bend in the rope…

We exchanged ‘don’t let it break’ looks with each other, and I told him to make sure he fixed it before the next patient.

Luckily we only had about a 20′ pull to work with, and the haulers weren’t able to get too far. “Hold what ya got” I said to them as the Tower lieutenant called me over.

When he had rigged the rear end of the Z-rig he didn’t have a Prussik minding pulley to work with, only a regular round one. Plus, there was only one size prussik available, so he had only wrapped one on, and When the haul team hauled, he didn’t hold the prussik in place and it had pulled through the pulley.

“That’s okay,” I said and checked to make sure the haul team was okay holding the weight of the stokes. I told the Lt. to remove the prussik and retie it. Then I explained that he’d half to mind it on the next lift.

“C’mon this guy is hanging in mid-air!!”

The chief’s were getting anxious. I walked up to the county battalion chief gesturing “calm down” and explained the problem we had run into.

“It’s going to take a minute to get it fixed, and it’s going to take a while to haul this guy up ’cause we’ve only got a limited pull, so we’ll have to pull & reset, pull & reset.”

‘OK’ he nodded.

“How’s this?”

I was called over by the rescue squad crew to look at the second stokes basket they had rigged. It looked pretty good, and they had done a pretty good job of balancing it out. I had them tighten up one leg of the system a bit, and then went over to check on how the prussik retie was coming.

The Lt. said he was ready to go. I reset the system, checked to make sure everybody was ready, and gave the word.

We chock-a-blocked again, reset, and on the final haul brought him to about 6 inches below the level of the bridge when our knot reached the change of direction. The Battalion Chiefs, and Captains which had all been peering over the edge grabbed hold of the basket like it was going to fall, and began trying to lift him the rest of the way.

Our Battalion Chief, who isn’t a young guy, yelled to me with a ‘I can’t lift this guy’ desperation in his voice “Don’t just stand there help lift this guy.”

“Just hold tight Chief, he’s not going anywhere.”

I got the county chief to have the aerial raise up slightly, which cleared the basket, and we lowered him to the roadway by backing off on the haul system.

As the top-side medics moved the first guy to the ambulance, Craig redid the change of direction. Then I held open the haul system, and we lowered the second basket down, as I did a quick visual on the rope to make sure it looked okay after running through that Gibbs.

The second pull went very smooth, now that everybody knew what was going on, and we had eliminated the friction at the CoD. With the aerial being a little higher now, we were able to pull the guy clear of the bridge ourselves.

They moved the second patient out of the way, and- because the first two hauls were so much fun- decided they would use the stokes baskets to raise all the equipment up from below.

Two more lifts and we were done.

The county Battalion Chief came over to tell me ‘thanks’ and ‘well done’ and we did a quick critique between the two of us.

“Was what we did okay?” he asked.

“Well, we should’ve had a safety line and at the beginning we rushed too much and I wasn’t able to do a check of the system before we started lifting. Had I been able to do that I should’ve been able to catch the problem with the Gibbs & prussik.”

“Were you comfortable with the way we had it, without the safety?”

“The only thing that made me uncomfortable was the way the rope was running through the Gibbs on the ladder. Beyond that, I was happy… With a single person load… We were within the limits of the system… Since everything turned out okay, it was fine.  Luckily the rope didn’t break.”

“Well, I really appreciate your help.”

“Anytime Chief.  Hopefully, never again.”

Major Problems Encountered:
– no safety belay.
– mis-rigged gibbs at change of direction.
– there was only one size prussik, so only one prussik was wrapped.
– no check of the system before use.
– I’m not sure if/how the patients were secured in the stokes.

The whole scenario is a good example of what happens when you don’t practice what you’ve learned. Obviously, everyone there (all career) had had Rescue Technician which included training in exactly what we did. It was clear as I went along that the ‘awareness’ was there, they just needed help unlocking the knowledge from the back of their brains.

We (the engine) was placed in service and we returned to quarters. When our Battalion Chief got back he couldn’t stop saying how much the county appreciated what we did.

Everybody in the city was happy, mostly because the county tends to thumb their noses at us, and look down on us as a lesser department. Our rescue squad tends to never be called out into the county, due to a past incident (from what I’m told) where they had a serious wreck with extrication in the county and the crew that arrived from the city wasn’t even able to get the Hurst tool set up.

So hopefully this will help dispel some of the stereotyping… Although we still have a fair share of morons in the city who are worthless.

Anyway, I don’t want to jinx myself, but there could very well be a citation or commendation coming out of this, which, while on one hand would be nice, is also kind of funny because it wasn’t anything special that was done.

But, in a department that has a history of giving out medals to people who do silly stuff, most of which is administrative paper pushing, it would be nice to get one for actual doing something related to “firefighting.”

After John had passed away, I had called Chief Smith and asked him for a copy of any recognition that John had received.  I thought it would be important for Nathaniel someday.  John has some of the originals, but I don’t know where they are and I don’t know if he saved all of them.  When I met John, he had all of his plaques for having over 100 calls proudly displayed in his room and he had newspaper clippings from all of the fires he’d been on.  At some point, he took the plaques down and threw out the clippings.  I tried with no avail to convince him to keep the clippings.

In the file that I was sent, I found

Annapolis Fire Department Exemplary Performance Award

is awarded to

Firefighter John P. Smith II.

This Exemplary Performance Award is awarded to Firefighter Smith for his actions on September 29, 2002.  Firefighter Smith did an excellent job of engineering the setup and operation of a “Z Rig” rope rescue.  The operation successfully hoisted two badly injured men from a gully sixty feet below where their car had landed after going over a guard rail.  Both men survived due in no small part to Firefighter Smith’s actions.  The “Z Rig” rope rescue is a complicated, rarely done operation that could have easily gone wrong.  The Battalion Chief noted that the operation could not have gone any better.

The Annapolis Fire Department commends Firefighter Smith for his commitment to the community and the fire service.


Ellen Moyer- Mayor

Edward P Sherlock Jr- Fire Chief

I don’t know how big of an honor it is to receive an Exemplary Performance Award.  But I do know that years later, and even at John’s funeral the call was discussed.  John started with AFD in 2000, so back in 2002 he was still one of the “newer” guys, back in 2002.  I know he thought it was cool that everybody looked to him.

John loved doing rope rescue.  He was a pro at knots and riggings.  He loved when Cecil County had their rope rescue team.  I don’t know if they ever went on any calls, but he certainly enjoyed practicing and training.

I always was impressed with John’s rope talents, as I lack the talents to even tie a simple safety knot most of the time.  A figure 8 is about as technical as I get and usually I have to tie it wrong once or twice before I get it right.  Poor Nathaniel… hope I can figure out how to show him to tie his shoes when he’s old enough.

About Mary K. Smith

I was widowed in July 2009, when I lost my beloved husband, John, to melanoma. Cancer SUCKS. We have a young son who was just a year old when his father died. I live on a small farm in Maryland which is home to horses, cats, and a dog. I started this blog as a way for me to heal, a way to remember my husband, and eventually I'd like to share it with our son so he can see the love that his father had for him, the love that we had for each other, what a great person his father was, and how hard his father fought to live.
This entry was posted in Annapolis Fire Department, Community Fire Company of Rising Sun, Events in honor of John, Nathaniel, Pre-stage IV and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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